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By Mary Maguire

St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th honors the first Christian martyr stoned to death shortly after the Crucifixion.

On St. Stephen’s Day in some towns of Ireland, a procession through the streets is held to celebrate an old Irish tradition called the Wren Boys. The celebration has little to do with St Stephen. It used to be that young boys would hunt, catch a wren and stone it to death. The boys would then parade the dead wren from house to house on a pole. They wore straw hats, and either blackened their faces or wore a mask and old clothes. At each house they might sing the Wren Boys’ song:-

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings, would do it not wrong,
And two or three shillings, would do it not wrong,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won't agree with these wren boys at all.

The money collected then was used to purchase supplies for a ceili which was held at the wren boys’ final destination and the whole town was invited. The ceili finale was one of the reasons that this custom came close to extinction. Emigration was another reason but the clerical opposition was a major influence. The Church viewed the custom as an occasion of sin – because with every ceili there was dancing, traditional music, singing and, of course, alcohol.

So why the wren? There are different myths and legends about the origin of this custom. Celtic myth had it that the robin represented the New Year and killed the wren which represented the Old Year. Wren Boys blackened their faces and go from house to house asking for money to bury the wren.

“Up with the kettle and down with the pan, give us a penny to bury the wren”

The wren was considered a cursed bird. The wren is small in size and flies very low and has a reputation for treachery.

A wren is said to have betrayed Irish soldiers fighting the Norsemen by beating its wings on the Norsemen’s shields, thus waking the camp which led the Irish soldiers to be defeated. The wren, too, is blamed for betraying St. Stephen by chattering when St Stephen was in hiding from his enemies. He was hunted down and stoned to death. This is the usual explanation as to why the wren is the hunted bird on St. Stephen's day.

Nowadays, the wren boys’ tradition is an evening about having as much craic as you can. Young to old, families dress up in old clothes and blacken their faces and either go door to door or from one pub to another with musical instruments, singing and dancing.

A holly bush nailed to the top of the pole now takes place of the dead wren. In some towns, the focal point of the Wren boys’ parade is a hobby horse. A pantomime-type horse with a wooden head, snapping jaws and a body made from cloth stretched across a timber frame is worn on the shoulders of one of the members of the Wren Boys and whirls at the head of the parade.

St Stephen’s Night is a fun night and St Stephen’s Day is also one of nine official public holidays in Ireland.